KHARTOUM — Bandits who kidnapped 19 tourists and Egyptians in the desert have moved them from Sudan to Libya, shadowed by Sudanese forces who have said they will not put the hostages’ lives at risk.
“The kidnappers and the tourists have moved to Libya, about 13 to 15 kilometres (eight to nine miles) across the border,” Ali Yousuf, director of protocol at the Sudanese foreign ministry, told AFP.
“All hostages are well, according to our information, and we are monitoring the situation… Military forces are in the area, but we are not going to make any move that puts the lives of those being held in any risk.”
The group of five Germans, five Italians and a Romanian as well as eight Egyptian drivers and guides was snatched by masked bandits while on a desert safari to view prehistoric art in Egypt’s remote southwest on September 19.
An Egyptian official has said the bandits want Germany to pay a six-million-euro (8.8 million dollar) ransom.
“Germany is in contact with the kidnappers, and Sudan is remaining in close contact with the Egyptian, Italian, German and Romanian authorities,” Yousuf said.
Libyan authorities, contacted by AFP, declined to comment on the hostages’ whereabouts.
An Egyptian source quoted by the official MENA news agency said the group had moved “most probably because of water shortage in the place where they were kidnapped.”
“Sudanese authorities have informed us they (the hostages) have been moved to Libya,” a security official in Cairo said, asking not to be named. “We don’t know if they are being released or if the crisis is worsening.”
The group’s latest move means they are heading west around Jebel Uweinat, a 1,900-metre-high (6,200-foot-high) plateau roughly 30 kilometres (20 miles) in diameter that straddles the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan.
In August, two hijackers of a Sudanese plane surrendered to Libyan authorities after landing in Kufra, an oasis in southeast Libya and some 300 kilometres (200 miles) away.
In contrast to the undeveloped Egyptian and Sudanese territory around Jebel Uweinat, the Libyan side has access to roads and also has a continuous military presence.
Egypt has said Germany is heading negotiations through the German wife of the Egyptian tour operator who is among the missing. Berlin has only said it has set up a kidnap crisis team.
Several different ransom figures have been cited since the group was first reported missing on Monday.
The group was taken from Egypt’s Gilf el-Kabir 25 kilometres (17 miles) into Sudan to Jebel Uweinat, where Sudanese forces were “besieging the area.”
Khartoum has said the hostages have not been harmed and it has no intention of storming the area “so as to preserve the lives of the kidnapped persons.”
Travellers in their 70s are among the hostages being held in the desert, where daytime temperatures can hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) even in September.
The area of the kidnapping is a desert plateau famous for prehistoric cave paintings, including the “Cave of the Swimmers” featured in the 1996 film “The English Patient.”
Authorities only became aware of the abduction on Monday when the tour group leader phoned his wife to tell her of the ransom demand.
An Egyptian security official has said the kidnappers are “most likely Chadian” after Sudan said they were Egyptians.
Other officials have suggested the kidnappers rebels are from one of Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, although several rebel groups have denied this.
Kidnappings of foreigners are rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in the Nile resort of Luxor, demanding that his estranged wife bring his two sons back from Germany. He freed the hostages unharmed.